Had a catastrophic event struck Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on Friday, the U.S. could have been looking ahead to a very different future.
Both the outgoing Obama administration and incoming Trump administration selected a “designated survivor” for the event ― someone who stayed at a secret, protected location and would become president if everyone ahead of them in the presidential line of succession were killed.
Barack Obama’s designated survivor for the inauguration was Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the White House announced. And Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), president pro tempore of the Senate, issued a press release saying he would serve as a designated survivor at Trump’s request.
“As much as I would have liked to participate in the ceremony and festivities, I am honored to perform this important constitutional duty, which ensures the continuity of government,” Hatch said.
John Fortier, former director of the Continuity of Government Commission, told CNN prior to the inauguration that there would be two different lines of succession, depending on whether Trump had actually been sworn in yet.
“[There is] one from the Barack Obama administration, which is still in place, and one which really won’t be in place until Donald Trump is inaugurated, comes into office, actually formally nominates them and the Senate confirms his people,” Fortier said. “You might actually end up with a president from the prior administration because of a tragedy.”
Trump selecting Hatch to sit out the event may have meant that Obama’s pick didn’t even matter. The Senate’s president pro tempore is higher in the line of succession than the homeland security secretary ― and as stated earlier, a designated survivor only becomes president if everyone ahead of them in the line of succession dies.
Designated survivors are typically chosen for events like inaugurations, state of the union speeches and presidential addresses to joint sessions of Congress. Only people who already fall within the line of succession are eligible for the role.
The U.S. tradition of a designated survivor dates back to the Cold War era, and the concept has gotten a lot more press in recent months with the release of the ABC show “Designated Survivor,” which stars Kiefer Sutherland.
This article has been updated with more details about the presidential line of succession.